The response to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East has been varied to say the least. Initially underestimating the scale of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, many governments favoured a pro status quo approach for the sake of political, strategic and economic stability, which slowly, then more rapidly moved towards support for regime change. In the case of Libya, there was little disagreement amongst the international community that Gaddafi’s actions were worthy of condemnation, and instead the debate centred around how strong the response should be and whether or not some form of intervention was necessary. Why, however, in the wake of ongoing deadly crackdowns against protesters in Bahrain, who have equally compelling reasons to demand regime change, has the international response been so muted?
The protests in Bahrain, led by Shia parties and activists demanding more representative government and greater equality, which began in earnest on the 14th of February across Bahrain caused immediate alarm when heavy-handed policing led first to the death of a protester and then a further death at the funeral which followed. The situation changed dramatically in tone after the February 17 crackdown on protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, which left 6 people dead and hundreds injured. Undaunted, protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout where they continued their sit in, refusing to accept offers of dialogue and calling now for the end of the monarchy.
On March 14 hundreds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops and police, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrived in Bahrain at the government’s request. The following day a state of emergency was declared and, on the 16th of March, Bahraini security forces again drove protesters from the symbolic Pearl Roundabout and from surrounding streets. Public gatherings and marches were subsequently banned. The Salmaniya hospital, where most of the dead and injured protesters had been taken, was raided, medical staff were arrested, and the tents set up by protesters were also removed.
On the 18th of March the Pearl Monument was torn down by the government in an attempt to deny the protesters what had become their rallying symbol. Concerned about violent repression, the opposition parties called off further protests for fear of more deaths. Last Friday, a call to action via independent protesters through Facebook and Twitter drew large crowds in towns across Bahrain, but the protests were dispersed by a heavy security presence.
In total, at least twenty people have been killed, including two policemen, and hundreds, possibly thousands injured during a month of heavy-handed security crackdowns. The security response has included house raids and arrests of human rights activists, dissidents and members of opposition parties on charges of sedition, murder and contact with foreign states. Perhaps the most shocking image to come from this is a video showing protesters marching towards security forces holding flags and chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” being gunned down in cold blood. One man appears to have been killed instantly by a shot to the head. http://bit.ly/gcjinZ
Bahrain is a society that is significantly segregated along sectarian lines. The ruling Al Khalifa family is part of the Sunni Muslim minority, who constitute roughly 35 percent of the population. Bahraini Shias are heavily discriminated against in politics, employment and services. Yet, unlike Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are not largely driven by poverty, but by inequality and lack of representation. Unemployment stands at close to 20%, but this is largely amongst the Shia population.
The Al Khalifa family have been refusing more participatory government since the 1950s. Significant constitutional reforms were again promised in the 1970s and then abandoned. King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999, promised reforms in 2002, but the new constitution which did emerge gave considerable new powers to the Consultative Council of Bahrain, which is handpicked by the king and has powers of veto over the lower house. Despite the largest opposition party holding 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahraini parliament, this does not translate into legislative power. Protesters have avoided taking a sectarian stance and have instead stressed the need for equality and unity, to little effect.
The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has held his position since 1971. In recent weeks, opposition Shia parties have opted to boycott parliament in support of the popular protests. The crackdowns have been seen as a victory for hard-liners in the regime.
It is for these reasons that the opposition groups, led by Wefaq, have repeatedly rejected offers of dialogue and instead demanded the establishment either of a republic or constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the increasingly violent crackdowns, however, they have eased their demands that the royal family step aside from politics altogether, and have shown some willingness to engage in negotiations.
What makes the situation of the protesters in Bahrain so difficult is that there is next to no chance of either the security forces or military siding with them. The Al Khalifa regime has for some years now been recruiting exclusively Sunni personnel, both from within Bahrain and also from other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, including Iraqis formerly employed under Saddam Hussein. Most of the Pakistani recruits speak neither Arabic nor the local dialect and are seen by the Shia majority as hated mercenaries. The foreign recruits are given housing and citizenship, creating further resentment amongst the local Shia majority. Often, the recruits are hardline Sunni fundamentalists with strongly anti-Shiite sentiments.
“Our army are not really native Bahrainis,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwedaye, a Bahraini activist, speaking to Al Jazeera. “They are all brought over from different countries. So their loyalty is not really to the country. The army is fully controlled by the king himself and his agenda is the agenda which has to be followed.”
The exact figures are kept secret, but the policy is part of a broader attempt to shift the demographics in favour of the Sunni minority, who constitute just 35% of the population.
In a country with such a clear sectarian divide, which has until now, managed to avoid much sectarian violence and unrest, there is grave potential for Shia-Sunni relations to worsen dramatically. This will not only have domestic consequences, but regional consequences as well. Some analysts are concerned that should the situation drag on, it will lead to greater radicalisation of Bahrainis and might potentially result in civil war. Bahrain may be small geographically and population-wise, but then so is Gaza and the impact of events there cannot be downplayed. Iran and Syria, who already support and arm Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon for example, may seek to do so in Bahrain as well. Iran has made it clear that it regards the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain as an “occupation”, making full use of the circumstances to promote further its regional leadership amongst Shias. Iran has demanded the removal of GCC troops and recalled its ambassador. Bahrain has expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires, whilst Iran has ordered out a Bahrainian diplomat.
The United States finds itself in a bind because the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. All Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had to say after the brutal crackdown on March 16 was that Bahrain and the GCC were “on the wrong track.” The United States seems more concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf state than the implementation of reforms. Even with the very muted pressure the Obama administration has placed on Bahrain, its relations with Saudi Arabia have become increasingly strained. The Saudis have several times warned both Iran and the United States not to interfere in Bahraini affairs.
It is not merely the United States who have taken a soft approach on Bahrain, but response of the international community has been decidedly cautious. Despite expressions of outrage, with the exception of Iran, little real pressure has been applied. After a recent fact-finding visit to Bahrain, Robert Cooper, a special advisor to EU foreign Policy chief Baroness Ashton was defensive of the Bahraini security forces saying “accidents happen.” He stated that “the exceptional nature of recent events is part of the problem, because… it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence.” Despite some strong criticism of his comments by EU colleagues, there seems little willingness to consider the application of greater diplomatic pressure.
The United Nations has made clear its displeasure at the situation in Bahrain, and in Manama in particular, but again there seems little appetite for stronger measures. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concerns about “arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces.” She described it as “shocking and illegal conduct.” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians.”
The Middle East has long been a strategic balancing act for the United States and the international community at large and it seems that in the case of Bahrain, the old paradigm still stands. The overriding concern is to maintain economic and strategic stability. The US will be reluctant to damage further its standing with Saudi Arabia, and has little room to move because of its naval base. The EU seems reluctant to engage with the situation and whilst the UN has used strong language, it has done little else. It begs the question as to what ultimately caused the world to recognise the need for change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Because it was morally right, because regime change had become inexorable and thus inevitable, or was it out of concern to garner positive relations with the newly emerging leadership? It seems that in Bahrain, strategic and economic concerns have outweighed any moral imperative to pressure the regime to make significant reforms. What happens next is likely to happen internally, though external mediation is still a possibility. A new offer by Kuwait to mediate in talks with the regime has been welcomed by Wefaq, but it remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa regime is willing to consider reform. If the government is not genuine about dialogue and the unrest continues, there will likely be regional implications that may force an unwanted shift in the world’s relationship to Bahrain.
This article was first published in New Matilda on 28/03/11: